20 September, 2021 § Leave a comment
Want to learn how to write creatively? Most writers start out thinking they can write. Some can. Many realise after initial attempts that there’s an endless litany of lessons to be learned. Plot, Structure. Theme. Characters. Setting. Tropes. Editing, Publishing. And they are just the big topics.
When wanting to develop your writing skills, there are two avenues to follow, or are there?
- hunt for a tertiary education eg Masters in Creative Writing
- hit the search engines and see what turns up
Many published authors are disparaging of getting formal qualifications as a writer. Some are published because they wrote their seminal book as part of their degree. Can you teach creative writing? Yes, insomuch as there are conventions and techniques to be learned. Yes, insofar as gaining the discipline to produce a body of work. The question is how many people start a creative writing qualification compared to those who publish as a result? Is there a set of statistics to validate the value of a degree in writing?
Tap ‘creative writing’ into an accepted search engine and you will return over 1. 5 billion results. Amongst those will be articles, blog posts, videos, and courses. Narrow that search to ‘learn how to write fiction’ and you will find more than 500 million references. That is a lot of rabbit holes to chase down to find the nugget you seek. There has never been a better time to learn to write well in terms of the volume of information and resources available to you. There has never been a more confusing time to learn how to write well given that very same volume of information and resources. What tends to happen is you dig around the results from your search and before you know it you either lose hours stuck in the web of usefulness or you find as you dig deeper there is so much more for you to learn. Either way, what you are not doing is the very thing you seek to do: write.
By all means, if you have time or money to invest in digging deep into the web offerings or a formal qualification, take that path if it suits you.
Let me give you alternatives.
- Write as often and for as long as you can. Each time you write you will develop your craft. Freewriting is a good way to kick this habit off. Simply commit to writing for ten minutes at a time without lifting the pen off the page. After a time you will notice the difference in your writing and will spot a few story ideas.
- Read as much as you can, even if it’s just a page a day, peferably in the style you enjoy – crime, romance, historial, memoir. Each read will implant a sense of structure and style in your mind which will spill onto the page as you write. Highlight passages that grab you, note sentences that strike you, jot down ideas that come to you. This is learning, not copying. You are teaching yourself by reading published authors.
- Spend time in your local library. Check the books on their shelves in the writing and literature section – take one or two home and learn from them. Borrow Stephen King’s ‘On Writing”, Anne Lamotte’s ‘Bird by Bird’, Stephen Zinsser’s ‘On Writing Well’, Natalie Goldberg’s ‘Writing Down the Bones’ to name a few. Ask your librarian about Book Clubs – they often run quite a few and will encourage you to read widely. Most libraries also have access to Historical Resources to explore local history or family history – both great sources of inspiration for writing ideas.
- Find a couple of easy,low-risk writing competitions which give you prompts to write to and a deadline to end on. Books or websites with writing prompts are good but it’s too easy to procrastinate without a time limit. Writer’s groups often have writing comps and exercises to improve your writing.
- Join your local writing group – you will get access to workshops, talks, craft development and feedback amongst other things. The cameraderie in writing groups is only limited by your preparedness to get involved. You may or may not find someone who writes in your genre but all chances to improve your writing don’t come packaged in neat little bundles. You have to untie them to find what’s inside, but all are learning opportunities.
Learning how to write is best achieved by finding what works from those who have gone before, and writing as often as you can. Keep in mind though, once you start writing, there is no end to the learning.
There is always something to pick up along the way and play with.
And if it’s not fun, why do it?
14 September, 2021 § Leave a comment
When you have an opportunity to hear an author talk, it pays to listen. Especially if that author is successful, as in some fifty published books or more – both traditional and self-published and has won awards for her writing.
Today was such a chance for me.
Fiona McArthur is on the hustings (at least virtually in a covid environment), promoting her latest published tome, The Farmer’s Friend. Now, ‘farmer’s friend’ has a whole meaning on its own, but in this case, the story was loosely inspired by her son’s taking up of a small-town general-purpose store, the kind that sells everything from baked beans to cattle feed. The small fictional town explores the nuances of living in a small but geographically spread community, the tragedies that come from living in a relatively isolated valley, and the camaraderie when people pull together to get through tough times. And, of course, the romance and the babies!
I’ve not read the book yet so you won’t be getting any spoiler alert from me but I do know it’s now available at local and national stores for purchase as well as online. Read about the book here.
As a best-selling Australian author Fiona McArthur draws from her life as a rural midwife, and shares her love of working with women, families and health professionals in her books. In her compassionate, pacey fiction, her love of the Australian landscape meshes beautifully with warm, funny, multigenerational characters as she highlights challenges for rural and remote families, those in the city and the strength shared between women. This book steps the reader away from her rural romances in vast outback landscapes and takes the reader into a smaller world but one equally as entertaining and enjoyable. It explores what makes family.
What are the lessons gleaned from today’s talk? Here’s a sample of what I took away.
- Fiona started writing seriously in her 30’s but didn’t see a completed book and success until she leant into her lived experience as a midwife and started putting her knowledge onto the page, woven with romance and stories grounded in quintessentially Australian locales. Message – use what you know – it’s more authentic.
- When you start with the nub of an idea, and steep yourself into that world, the world opens up for you and your characters – follow where it leads because there are layers of experiences you can bring into your book.
- Find moments that connect with the reader and be prepared to incorporate social issues such as the increasing prevalence of grandparents bringing up young ones, financial imbalances, mental health matters and so on.
- Consider writing as an activity that needs attention for it to bear fruit. Fiona writes around 500-1000 words a day every day, or at least two hours. Inspiration isn’t waiting for an invitation, it’s clocked in at writing time.
- Productivity meets deadlines. Fiona works at one major work and a couple of smaller books each year. That’s possibly around 200,000 words a year. Set yourself some targets even if it’s just a novella or a series of short stories. On top of writing time, remember there’s marketing, promotion, revision, edits, covers and more.
- Researching an area will reveal some little known facts such as how a produce store works, is stocked and managed – something most people don’t know or need to know but enriches the reader with some inside information. Give your reader some insights.
- Finally, no matter whether you have one book under your belt, or a half century of them, the more genuine and humble you are, the more readers can relate to you and the more writers are inspired by you. Fiona fits that bill. She’s one of my favourite writers, and humans.
On top of those specific points, Fiona’s talk sparked a few creative ideas which may or may not see the light of day, but they’ve been jotted down and popped into the ‘ideas’ file for when I need some inspiration.
As a reader, author talks let you dive deeper into your favurite writers and their stories and glean more from the behind-the-scenes moments. As a writer, every author appraoches writing differently and you can learn tips and technqiues that inform your quest to produce a read-worthy story.
Take advantage of the surfeit of information available in the virtual platforms at the moment and soak up as much as you can before any semblance of normal life returns and we’re whisked back into places where we have less time to indulge ourselves in these stories behind the stories. But don’t just listen: learn.
Best-selling Australian author Fiona McArthur draws from her life as a rural midwife and shares her love of working with women, families, and health professionals in her books. Her compassionate, pacey fiction, blended with a love of the Australian landscape meshes beautifully with warm, funny, multigenerational characters as she highlights challenges for rural and remote families, those in the city, and the strength shared between women.
Check your local library for upcoming author talks. Mid North Coast Library is outstanding at snaffling writers for chats, workshops, panels, and other events. of course, at the moment those are virtual but they are even better ‘live’. MNC also has an amazingly successful series of Book Clubs throughout the region.
12 July, 2021 § Leave a comment
Writing a short story sounds easy. Hey, it’s only a few hundred to a few thousand words, not an 80,000 word opus: much more doable – yes?
A short story still has to be a story with a beginning, middle and end. It still has to engage a reader to want to keep reading. And the fact that you are using fewer words than a traditional novel means that each word has to work hard. Every word has to pack a punch. Words need to advance the story rather than set elaborate scenes and backstories – you don’t have room for that in a short.
Economy and utility of words is something many fledgling short story writers miss.
What most writers and authors also miss is the value of writing short stories to your marketing and branding.
Lynn Johnston is a successful cartoonist and a prolific author and even during her illness and recovery from Covid-19, still managed to produce bucketloads of words, way more than many healthy, functioning writers. So she knows a thing or two about making your words count.
This video was produced a few years ago but is still relevant today.
Next time you write a decent short, think about how you can make it work harder for you. Watch and learn 🙂
10 July, 2021 § Leave a comment
It happens. It’s super-annoying, frustrating and anxiety-inducing when it does, but it happens.
At some point in your writing life, you will hit a period of drought. The words fail to come when you sit down to write. Ideas abandon you for a Summer somewhere else. Cleaning the tracks on the sliding doors with a toothbrush suddenly seem incredibly important when you think about sitting down to write.
The harder you try to plough the field, the drier it gets. And we all know, without that life-giving rain, seeds don’t sprout, crops don’t grow.
Sometimes there’s a trigger and sometimes it just comes out of the blue.
For me, as a fledgling writer it took hold after attending a writer’s conference: an event that was designed to inspire me and fire me up to becoming a productive commercial success. It ended up quashing my creative juices completely. For. Months. Truly. Oh sure, I wrote in between but very little and not much more than a few hundred words for writing classes or small competitions.
Not knowing why I couldn’t write, I poured myself into other activities and a constant series of writing courses and exercises to kick-start the engine. Didn’t happen. But I gained considerable insight into craft issues like point of view, use of place, importance of characterization and so much more.
That’s one thing to keep in mind when the mojo disappears: use the time to develop your craft by doing courses, learning from others, reading books in your genre and spending time at the library looking up writing magazines and books. Make notes about your learning (see? you’re writing!).
Here are some other techniques.
Work out the trigger that stopped you.
It will give a clue on what’s underlying your loss of mojo. In my case, the conference subconsciously had me comparing myself to these other productive and published authors and, in my mind, falling way short. I’ll guarantee you that, unless a tragic circumstance intervened like loss or injury, the foundation is fear. Fear is designed to motivate you to keep you safe. Ask yourself, ‘how is this working for me?’ There’ll be something like failure or rejection that pops up as an answer. You have to name it to conquer it.
Give yourself permission to not write.
It’s ok to take a break. If your mojo has deserted you, take advantage of the opportunity. Play in a new space – take up drawing, pole dancing, volunteering – anything that gives you a different slant at life. Everything you do ends up bleeding onto the page somewhere so it’s never a wasted experience.
Be kind to yourself.
When you stop writing, and you know you should be, your inner critic comes out to play. It will tell you you’re no good, remind you of all the other times you didn’t commit, any negative input it can find will pop into your head. Don’t listen to it! If you do, it will kill your chances of getting your mojo back.
Stress less about not writing and utilise the time to do what will enhance your writing. Let it flow. But don’t let it flow too long. Give yourself permission to ‘take a break’ but then set a deadline to get back into the practice and routine of writing – you don’t want your mojo to take a permanent holiday!
9 May, 2021 § Leave a comment
It never ceases to amaze me … the diverse backgrounds and deep desire people have for learning to write.
I’ve met a wonderful people in my writing workshops over the years.
Here’s a sampling of some of their stories:
- One has written a family history and has an idea for a story on a relative who was a convict.
- Another would love to write children’s books with her daughter.
- Alice is well into her 80’s and is being encouraged by her grandchildren to write down all the fantasy stories she has related to them.
- Jack has been working on a rollicking good Aussie young adult adventure story.
- Johann wrote an epic historical family memoir and needs to shape it up for publication.
Each of these is an ordinary person. They work, they have families, pastimes, and pressures. And they have either a burning desire or a persistent itch that drives them to write. Just as all successful and famous writers were and are ordinary.
Well, not all. I met Bryce Courteney many years ago before he became an author. At the time he was a copywriter and in his own fledgling business after being a big success in Advertising in a major firm. He went on to write commercial fiction, publishing annually just in time for Christmas sales. He learned a lot from his advertising career and made sure he wrote to meet the market. He was a unique individual, but he was a regular person.
There lies the magic!
To be a writer is within the reach of anyone.
Let me repeat that: to be a writer is within the reach of anyone. Including you!
All it needs is to find a story to tell. And the commitment to telling it.
Your past, your present, and your future each have nubs of ideas that can turn into a story.
Idea sparks surround you – in the news, advertisements, things that capture your attention, something you heard said, watching people at a cafe. The genesis of a story can be anywhere. It’s a matter of catching that seed, germinating and nurturing it, and watching it grow.
If it fails to thrive, put it aside and plant another story seed.
If you are a writer, you do more than say “one day”. You pick and prod at writing as time permits. You make time to write. You read and learn. You put ink to paper (even if indirectly through a keyboard). And you never let go of the dream of creating a work that gives you satisfaction and possibly appreciation from others.
In the words of Winston Churchill, “Never give up”.
30 April, 2021 § Leave a comment
When someone is about to embark on a writing journey, they often do so because they want to document their memories, or those of someone close to them. Why? Either for posterity or to share a fascinating period of time or to distribute to family now and in the future to give a glimpse of the times they lived through.
In fact, life writing, or memoir, can be one of the best places to start your writing practice. You don’t need to worry about imagination, or being creative, or deciding what genre or style to write in … you simply write from memory. You write the life you know, have experienced and can talk reliably about. Who else is an expert on your life more than you?
If you are one of those organised people who has kept a diary for all or part of your life, your raw material is easily accessible! The rest of us have to rely on memory, and we know how unreliable that can be.
Writing about a period of your life can be entertaining, cathartic, difficult, humorous, and everything in between.
Personally, I avoided writing memoir pieces for two reasons. Firstly my memory is limited: a lot of my life is blank and I rely on photographs much of the time to recall certain things. For those times I don’t have a physical image, I have an emotional or mental image in mind. Secondly, it can be painful bringing back some memories and life events. They say not to dwell on the past but at some point we all revisit it to reminisce or remember.
If you’re intending to publish your memoir, then making it easy for the reader to engage in your story is paramount. In all writing, you need to find a way to let the reader into what’s in your mind that you are trying to share or replicate for them. How you do that is through traditional story-telling techniques.
In memoir, perhaps one of the best methods is to employ the ‘show, don’t tell’ approach.
When writing a piece, aim to recollect as much sensory detail as you can.
- What season of the year was it? What time of day? Example, ” Wearing my shiny new black shoes, I skipped through the freshly fallen leaves that were all tones of yellow, brown and orange: I felt them crunch under my foot.” That gives you the sense this piece takes place around Autumn/Fall. Much better for the reader than saying, “it was autumn.”
- Think about the feelings you had at the time and where you felt it in your body. “I knew I did wrong and my throat started to constrict, my tummy tightened and my chest felt like it would fall in on itself. I hid my hands behind my back: I knew I was in for the Principal’s cane.” That has more import for the reader than “I was scared going to the Principal’s office because I knew I’d get the cane.”
- Which of your senses were involved? Was there a certain smell, aroma or scent? Were there noises around that were distinctive like “the rumble of an approaching locomotive”? Could you taste something? How about the physical feel of something, example, “the yellowing linen on Grandma’s table was crisp and standing to attention. I ran my hands over the tablecloth and it was smooth – so stiff I didn’t dare crinkle it.” Sounds, scents and tactile memories are keys to readers memories and imagination. You can use music to underline a period of time: “and I heard ‘Let It Be’ by the Beatles playing in the background” puts the memory around 1970 and will probably have your reader singing the words in their head.
- In your memory piece, were other people involved? Who was there? What role did they play? How did you feel about those people? How did you feel about them being there? Alluding to them or describing them and the impact of the other people being there brings your reader in as well.
- Did anything change, alter or shift during this period? Was it a pivotal moment in some way?
Memoir or life writing is more than the simple retelling of events. The more visceral you can make the experience, the more you can engage your reader to really make them feel as though they are in the moment with you/your character.
Use emotion, sensory cues and lots of showing (not telling) to bring this life-writing alive.
Make your reader want to turn the page to find out more.
This article was inspired by an online webinar presentation led by Dr Alison Daniell on the topic of Life Writing, held by Southampton University.
Photo credit: jarmoluk @ Pixabay https://pixabay.com/photos/photos-hands-hold-old-256887/
26 April, 2021 § Leave a comment
Why enter a writing competition?
Entering a writing competition forces you to write. It gives you a deadline and, hopefully, a topic or theme. And an impending deadline sure helps to focus the mind! Procrastination thieves are everywhere – if you’re like a lot of writers or aspiring writers then you might be inclined to put things off – you’ll write after … the washing is done, the shopping is done, you polish the car … you get the idea. A whole lot of perfunctory activities suddenly come into into prominence when you know you need to sit down to a blank page.
One of the big reasons people often enter writing competitions is the chance to compare your idea of how well you write to how others receive your writing. If your work gets through to the finalist round or you win a prize then that is confirmation of you as a writer. Don’t dismiss the size of competition or how many words you wrote – you made a mark and the judges chose what you wrote. Give yourself a pat on the back, bask in the glow of achievement and set your sights on writing the next entry.
How to win a writing competition?
Well, obviously, if there were a formula we’d all be winning and there’d really be non competition!
Surprisingly though, a lot of writers knock themselves out of contention before they even get to be read.
1. Firstly, you have to enter to win. Sounds simple enough but how many times have you printed out the entry form with the Terms and Conditions and lost them in the detritus of daily living, only to find them when the deadline has passed? Oh. It’s just me then? Or, you talk yourself out of actually writing by listening to that Negative Nancy in your noggin – tell her to take a hike until you’re done writing. Set up a ‘Competiton’ folder both on your computer and your desk to keep details of competitions in so you don’t lose them. I put them in deadline-date order.
2. Once you have the deadline date, the next thing to do is to pencil that in your diary – even if you’re just thinking about it. (If you are a Master Procrastinator, put the date a couple of weeks earlier!).
3. When you decide which comp to enter, use that end-date as the starting point to writing: calculate how many days/weeks you have along with the number of words required – schedule your writing time for that entry. Set your end date at least a week ahead so you have time to review and revise before submitting.
4. Before you start writing, read the Terms and Conditions, thoroughly. Especially note the open/close dates, word count limit, any theme, the purpose or reason for the competition that might give clues on what material is expected), format requirements, submission method eg online, email or by post. Research the organiser – that might inform you about their expectations or preferences with might give you an edge.
5. Word counts noted are usually fixed as a maximum, not suggested. Do not go over them and don’t go too far under them. If the entry states 1000 words and you send in 1001 … you’ll be thrown in the slush pile without a look-in. Note, word count often excludes Title, but check! Conversely, if you send in 250 words for a 1000 word comp, you’ll also be out. Match your entry close to the required word count but never over it.
6. Formatting is critical to follow – again, another opportunity to be eliminated. If the entry form asks for Courier 12pt single spaced and you send in 10pt Marker Felt double spaced, you’re upping the likelihood of being disqualified.
Following the Terms and Conditions of an entry is the first challenge in winning. Organisers review each entry at the beginning and cull those that don’t meet terms. In the ‘first round’ they’ll ask questions such as – has the entry submitted on time? is the layout as requested? Is the word count at or close to what’s been asked? Has the entry fee, if any, been paid? Have other conditions been met eg eligibility, theme etc? These administration actions take place up front, before your entry even has a chance of being submitted to judges.
You’d be surprised how many entries are disqualified at the first hurdle.
“But I wrote a really great story!”
Adhere to the requirements – they are there for a reason. If you’re not sure about anything ask the organisers or see if their website has a set of FAQs that might help. Keep in mind that organisers get hundreds if not thousands of entries and it’s not possible to respond individually.
With the technicalities out of the way, let’s look at writing your piece.
Consider what the organisers are looking for in any entry. Then, muse how the typical writer might respond … and brainstorm alternate approaches that are a little different. Twists, quirks and unexpected entries stand out from the pack – that can be a good thing if you are on target with your entry in all other respects.
For fiction, focus on your storyline, keep your point of view consistent, along with your style and tone.
Keep the reader engaged with pace and some tension.
Do some research where necessary to make your entry as good as possible.
Write your piece as best you can. Then put it aside for a while. Go play with something else then revisit your writing entry and see if you can revise it and improve it.
Remember to edit and proofread before hitting ‘ submit’. Give yourself every opportunity to put in your best entry.
Sad to say, there are no magic methods to winning a writing competition. You need to write a good story that fits the brief and meets requirements. The number of people who fail to give themselves a fair chance by not meeting requirements, or not even submitting is surprising! Don’t be that person.
Want a handy reference to what’s in this article? I created an informative infographic to keep on your bulletin board to remind you of the key points in entering a writing competition. Grab it below.
13 March, 2021 § Leave a comment
At 6.30 am this morning I woke to be ready to join in and listen to Women’s Voices, Telling Stories, storytelling evening hosted by Liz Weir. (It was evening in Northern Ireland!)
What a feast that was. I’m only sad that I had to leave early after an hour and a half. So many women weaved words of magic to spell-bind the listener. It was like times past where you’d sit around the campfire or hearth and listen to stories being told. Before the days of wireless and television and social media apps. A time when people focused on people and mesmerised children and adults with tales well spun.
It was a delightful hour and a half for me. I was enchanted, engaged and energised with creativity. I took notes of passages and phrases that stood out like “skin shimmering like white pearl” from Masako Carey, and many more.
Listening to storytellers is not something I’d normally do. It was an opportunity that presented itself and I grabbed the opportunity. I don’t plan to be a storyteller. But something told me it would be worthwhile times spent – and it was.
So, switch up how you take in information, what you consume, where you normally look for inspiration.
Doing different things accesses different regions of the brain and perks up your creative space. It shakes things up. Our brains are inherently lazy. Actually they’re highly efficient. They are designed to make sense of our world and then repeat the same process. Every now and then we benefit from changing our usual patterns, Like taking a different route home – you suddenly see things you’d not noticed for some time such as a tree in bloom or shedding its autumnal leaves. You’re alert to your surroundings because they are not overly familiar.
When you alter what comes into your vision and hearing, like listening to storytellers, you reconstruct temporarily your brain pattern. I feel inspired and creative and ready to write with new ideas after that session. I wouldn’t have felt that this morning if I’d followed my usual morning routine.
How can you shake up today or tomorrow to access some creativity and inspire your writing?
5 December, 2020 § Leave a comment
Like many writers and aspiring authors, the story of J.K. Rowling is a real rags-to-riches tale with so many lessons to learn. From her penniless start, her determination by writing in a local café, her complex plots and characters, her perseverance in the face of rejection and her capacity to turn her series into other products and merchandise making her the richest author to date.
Our chances of emulating her success is questionable but our ability to improve our mindset and craft is definitely possible.
Today I discovered a website dedicated to just that: learning from the lessons of Rowling. Grab a bevvie, find a comfy chair, hold your fave pen over your ever-present notebook and begin …
1 December, 2020 § Leave a comment
One of the first experiences with writing is generated by a desire to put together a family history or a memoir. I just came across this resource and thought I’d pop it in here so I don’t lose it – and can access it when I get around to doing my own family history!
Hopefully, these materials will stay around for a while, but if not, I’m sure a local library will be able to help.